Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Quick to temper and what to do about it

Quick to temper and what to do about it
I find myself trying to channel a little Obama these days. Not his overall brilliance--that would be too much--but maybe one of the keys to it: that calm he exhibits in the face of a lame argument presented with conviction and confidence.

See, I have a tendency toward impatience and frustration when I'm talking to someone I disagree with. I'm outspoken in sometimes counterproductive ways. So these days when someone says something I find truly objectionable, I try to channel Obama.

I'm outspoken partly because I'm inspoken. I hear my opinions loud and clear inside my head. For years now I've been attempting to cultivate greater powers of discernment regarding the soundness of arguments. My blogs and podcasts (www.mindreadersdictionary.com and www.teleodynamics.com), along with the three books and two hundred articles I've written on "tracking motives in thought and conversation" represent my obsession with the fine points of argument and theoretical methodology. I've set and calibrated alarms to go off in my head when someone is talking what I'd regard as hooey. I hear them loud and clear.

I'm also what I'd call reverse thin-skinned. Being thin-skinned means you absorb other people's vibes. You have no insulation. Being reverse thin-skinned means your vibes show. You're transparent, an easy read. I'm not great at concealing what I think. When I'm delighted my enthusiasm shows, which is a good thing. But when I'm displeased my displeasure shows too. When I hear what I regard as a lame argument, sour exasperation instantly contorts my face.

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Not so with Obama. A key to his success has been his slow temper, his self-possessed grace, and the warmth he exudes even with his detractors.

How does he do it?

It's clearly not that he has weak powers of discernment. A Harvard-trained lawyer, he must have lightning-fast reflexes in distinguishing strong from weak arguments. He is probably very inspoken, hearing every nuance of his own opinions about the things people say.

And he also seems authentically expressive. He is alive and aglow. It's part of his charisma. I doubt that he's just suppressing or faking emotional responses.

Rather, I think it's that his love for the person exceeds his objections to the person's argument. He loves the sinner while hating the sin against rationality. When he said in his acceptance speech that he would listen to us "especially when we disagree," he can follow through on that because, lightning-fast though his powers of discernment are, even faster are those flashes of affinity, driven by his constant recognition that our common bond and shared fate trump our differences. He has taken to heart Lincoln's assessment of the nation of his day: "We are not enemies, but friends . . . though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection."

At the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama won the hearts of many Americans by presenting what some pundits are calling a post-partisan, inclusionary America. Many voted for him this year because they wished for just that, a way to transcend our differences. And others voted for him not as a harmonizer but rather as a fighter, advancing progressive causes in the inescapable context of partisan conflict. In these heady moments since the election it's easy to overlook the conflict between being post-partisan and being progressively partisan. (For a brilliant analysis of Obama's dual identity, read or listen to George Packer's article in the November 17, 2008 New Yorker) Post-partisans and progressive partisans alike are looking to Obama for salvation from the mess we're in.

Speaking of salvation, Obama, though he doesn't walk on water, has this much in common with Jesus Christ. Both are perceived ambiguously as either transcending all battles or picking and winning the right ones. Jesus the prince of peace loved the least among us and turned the other cheek. But Jesus cursed the tree that would not bear fruit, and he drove the money-lenders out of the temple. Maybe he loved the money-lenders as he drove them out.

You can often both love and put your foot down. Ram Dass used to say, "Never put anyone out of your heart even if you have to put them out of your living room"--to which I'd comment that while that's true, you may end up in disagreement with those you've kicked out over whether you drove them out lovingly. The partisans whose policies Obama will not honor are very likely to scream bloody murder about his partisanship and to argue that talk of a unified America was only lip service (see Butterfly Punch).

I say I want to channel a little more Obama--but I need to be clear. It's the way he picks his battles, not the way he can sound like he could transcend all battles. I don't want to be a prince of peace but of skill.

I'd like to be slower to react, able to attend calmly on what feels like someone trying to pull the wool over my eyes. In the next few articles, I'll reflect on just what that takes.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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